Prom 17: Late-night Les Arts Florissants/William Christie – Rameau’s Grands Motets

Deus noster refugium
Quam dilecta tabernacula
In convertendo Dominus

Rachel Redmond & Katherine Watson (sopranos), Reinoud Van Mechelen (high tenor), Cyril Auvity (tenor), Marc Mauillon (baritone) & Cyril Costanzo (bass)

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 29 July, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

William Christie conducts Les Arts Florissants at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThis was the second appearance of Les Arts Florissants at the Proms this season, again celebrating Rameau in the 250th-anniversary year of his death. Seeing as Rameau’s contribution to the form of opera in the 18th-century is continually gaining greater recognition, it seems a pity that no room was found in the schedules to allow the Proms audiences to make their own estimate of that facet of his output. However, it is fair to say that, even with his reputation in the ascendant, the extant grands motets remain an obscure part of his work, worthy of exposure.

Three survive from the period around 1713-15 (those performed here) and a fourth seems to have been written as a fugal exercise for Rameau’s textbook Traité de l’harmonie. Although in form they stem from the liturgical tradition which was cultivated at the Versailles chapel, it is not clear that they were intended for ecclesiastical use. At the least they are of musical interest in heralding the dramatic techniques Rameau would develop in his operas.

With their extensive experience in performing Baroque opera (not only Rameau’s) William Christie and Les Arts Florissants certainly brought out the expressive effects of these works, for instance the heavy tugging at “the mountains [are] cast into the sea”, and the rumbling basso continuo at “the Almighty sanctified his dwelling” in Deus noster refugium; or the contrast drawn between the Jews’ captivity in Babylon at the beginning of In convertendo Dominus, followed by their sudden joy at being freed.

High tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen and Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouHowever, this did not preclude a somewhat more contemplative approach to the performances generally, particularly in the careful balance achieved in Quam dilecta tabernacula between tender thankfulness and resplendent joy in the presence of the Lord’s dwelling place. Even in the minor-key final chorus of this Motet the choir sounded animated.

Gently radiant vocal solos set the mood in each piece, with seamless singing for high tenor from Reinoud Van Mechelen in the first and third Motets, and dignified expression from Rachel Redmond in the second. In comparison, the other male soloists sometimes sounded a little brittle, and Marc Mauillon, especially, offered a rather raw tone – not to everybody’s taste, but instilling an earthier, even theatrical, character to a performance of otherwise studied refinement. The latter quality was instantly recognisable as the sound particularly associated with Les Arts Florissants, which imparts a seemingly French accent to the music itself, as well as obviously to the words sung, in this case despite the Motets’ Latin texts adapted from the Psalms. That musical approach is now being passed down to a new generation of singers, including the soloists here who are all graduates of Le Jardin des Voix, the academy which Christie has established to foster young musicians.

Christie and his ensemble demonstrated their versatility in four encores – virtually a second half added to the main concert. First was the beginning of Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville’s In exitu Israel, with a jaunty instrumental sinfonia, a solemn plainsong intonation in the lower voices, and a startling array of choral effects, such as a sort of musical stuttering or heaving sigh, serving to rouse the audience from any lethargy as this late-night concert drew on. Quiet, sombre intensity returned in the opening chorus from Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, performed at his funeral in 1764. Considerable contrast ensued again between the remaining two, unidentified, encores – high drama initially, and finally a delectable chorus in praise of love where the choir’s beautifully interwoven lines seemed to float free of gravity, caressing our ears and minds.

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